Chef Kent Smith, owner of Michael & Marion's restaurant, on Bayfield St. just around the corner from Tiffins, is a regular diner and one of a growing group of heat lovers who stop in at Tiffins especially for the phaal curry. A while ago, owners Goldie and Kay, realized that people were travelling from Toronto to savour their phaal curry because Tiffins is the only Indian restaurant in all of Canada to offer the dish on their regular menu. Other eateries do phaal curry challenges once in a while, as Tiffins has done in the past as well, but none offer it every day.
I was invited into the tiny kitchen where Chef Kay creates all his flavourful masterpieces. The chef, all decked out in a bright scarlet chef jacket, started with a pan of hot canola oil and the first ingredient that went in was fennel seeds. After they sizzled for a minute or so, he added a tomato and onion mixture which was then flamed in spectacular fashion! All very innocent so far, but Chef Kay did have a handful of face masks just in case at the ready nearby. Next came a generous ladle of chicken tikka and some cashew sauce and butter. A dollop of whipping cream added smoothness to the mixture. Up until that point, I would have eaten everything in the pan, but now came the source of the heat, a plate of 5 colourful chilies that been lurking to the side, waiting for their chance to turn the dish from vivacious to volcanic! Chef Kay piled the chilies up in the pan and then mixed them through the entire entree. Hello 800,000 to 1 million Scoville heat units!
The chef plated the phaal curry next to a mould of multicoloured basmati rice and garnished it with a clove and 2 chili pods. Who would be afraid of such a pretty platter? Me, that's who! Goldie, Kay's bubbly wife and co-owner of Tiffins Curry In A Hurry, carried the finished phaal dish out to Kent Smith, who was already set up with a glass of ice water and ready to dive into his lunch. My photographer son, Mitchell, snapped some pictures and I watched Kent dine and waited for something to happen. I half expected profuse sweating, gasping for air, rapid chugging of the ice water or perhaps even flames from his hair, but Kent ate away and carried on a conversation as if he was eating a dish of ice cream. I was surprised and possibly a little disappointed that nothing newsworthy occurred. Which leads me to my main question - why is Kent able to withstand the fire of phaal in his mouth and most others, like me, cannot?
Don't expect to find phaal curry on any menu if your travels take you to India. The dish was created in the United Kingdom, where there exists a long history of enjoying Indian food going much farther back than any taste for it here in Canada. The British Empire once extended into South Asia and the curries and tandoori dish recipes came back to Britain along with soldiers and government officials. Somewhere in that history, there were some that desired more and more heat and so phaal (or faal, fahl, paal etc.) curry was born. Chef Kay placed phaal on his original menu, when Tiffins Curry In A Hurry first opened its doors, unaware that he was doing something very unique in Indo-Canadian culinary circles.
As a professional cook, a food lover, a writer and a 30 year Barrie resident, I was really honoured to be asked to come and see this one of a kind meal be created and consumed. I have seen Barrie when it's downtown core had thriving but aging live music venues and bars, along with a selection of burger places and mom and pop family restaurants. Devastating fires and wrecking balls have laid waste many of the fine buildings we once had, but from the ashes new night spots have popped up along with a quickly increasing array of diverse eateries to choose from. Tiffins Curry In A Hurry is housed in a small, but perfectly sized (I think) space in a a 100 plus year old building just steps east of 5 Points. Who would have thought, three decades ago, that a Barrie restaurant would be drawing in customers from around the province with a unique Indian dish?
Kent finished his phaal curry and was on his way. He headed back up Bayfield St. to continue his work at Michael & Marion's. Before he left, he turned to me and said that the only think that disappointed him was the fact that I hadn't tried it too. Oh oh. Goldie took a teaspoonful of the phaal and some rice and offered it to me. With dares of "C'mon, Mom." from my photographer, I took a tiny bit off the point of the spoon and waited for something terrible to happen. Now all eyes were on me. Slowly the heat spread. I waited for it to get painful but it did not. In a minute, I was afraid I was going to lose my voice. I could only choke out a whisper as I was questioned about how I was feeling. But it got no worse than that and soon Goldie saved me from any possible further increase in heat by handing out the most delightfully cooling house made mango ice cream. I could not possibly do what Chef Kent had done, but I was mightily proud of myself for even trying that little bite, in the name of foodie science and exploration.